Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mass Movement? Think Twice

Something came up a couple weeks ago that I think is important to discuss. In the modern age, it is very easy for people to wrongly believe that a mass movement is afoot when the reality is very different. Let’s discuss.

Here’s the deal. When people live in a bubble, they tend to lose track of reality. They start to see the things that are important to the bubble as being important to the public generally. They lose track of the things the bubble does not care about. And they start to equate public opinion with whatever the bubble favors.

The internet makes this worse because it allows people to pick their own bubbles and never leave. What’s more, it allows a very small group of people to give the appearance of being a mass movement.

Consider this. If you lived in 1980 or 1984 or even 1990, it was nearly impossible to fake a mass movement because you couldn't provide confirmation. For example, you could see the popularity of The Simpson’s if you followed the ratings AND you saw everyone wearing Bart Simpson shirts. You might have recognized the Cabbage Patch Kid trend or the Rubik’s Cube trend because of the number of news articles telling you there was such a trend and because everyone around you participated in those fads. You might have seen the rise of Reagan as he won election after election and polled amazingly no matter what the press said. But could a single magazine create a trend? No. Why? Because no one would buy it because they wouldn’t see any confirmation. Suppose a small group held a protest to try to make you think the public was with them. Once you failed to see more than a small number of protestors, the lie was exposed. Fashion magazines wanted you to believe you could wear shorts with a suit... but no one did. Walter Mondale was the second coming, except he lost 49 states. And so on.

Today is different.

If you look at Conservative/Liberal Website 1, you may see a group of articles pushing a particular idea as a mass movement. Soon, other Conservative/Liberal Websites will cover it as well. The opposition will too. Then Drudge will link to it and talk radio talks about it too. Suddenly, what appears to be a massive number of “news” sources are reporting on this movement. The truth, however, is that you’re really only talking about maybe 10-15 writers tops, and they tend to survive by aping each other in the first place.

So you look for confirmation, right? That’s what told that the article in Time in the 1980’s was bullship, right? What do you see now? You see the comments sections of these same websites PACKED with confirming comments! Must be a mass movement! Wrong.

What you’re looking at really is again perhaps a couple hundred people. These people might just be mindlessly repeating what they have been told by the writers, or they might be genuinely believers... indeed, people with an interest are much more likely to start commenting on the things that interest them. But even if they are all genuine believes what does this mean?

Well, think about this. Say you have 200 people at any one website and 10 websites total all spewing the same bit about “real Amerikans” standing with them. Assuming it isn’t the same people (which it likely is), you are talking about 2,000 people. Heck, let’s multiply that number by 10 just to give them the benefit of the doubt and then by another 10 for the silent majority everyone claims. Now we’re dealing with 200,000 people. Woo hoo. That’s a lot, right?

Not really. That works out to 0.06% of the population. Said differently, in a football stadium, that equates to 37 people out of 60,000. Still think it’s a mass movement? Do you really think those 37 people can fairly be said to speak for the other 59,963 in that stadium?

This is the problem. Something like 200 to 2,000 people can use the internet to flood you with the same idea to make you think there is some sort of movement afoot. Campus rape? We’re ALL taking about it. End the death penalty? Feminism now! Raise the minimum wage!! Get rid of them damn Mexicans! Yes, everyone is talking about it... just look, it’s everywhere you go online and everyone is saying it. Essentially, a handful of people, not even noticeable if they were mixed in with a football crowd, are making you think that this is what “everyone” is talking about, that it’s a hot button issue... and that this is what “everyone” thinks.

See the issue?

Don’t be too quick to believe that “everyone” is really talking about the things the political world tells you that “everyone” is talking about. And most importantly, don’t believe any of this without real world confirmation. I think you will find that nothing you hear is “ruining America” actually exists beyond a small number of people.


Critch said...

A good point. if you looked only at Facebook you would think there was some movement to show that George Bush is a greedy war loving tyrant who charged a veterans charity way too much money to appear...of course, the truth is he charged them on $100M instead of $250M, then gave it back to them...besides he does all sorts of work on his won for vets...the only movement is MSNBC and idiots on FB. They tried their best to start something, but the legs gave out.

AndrewPrice said...

Critch, That's another good example.

All of this is the same. Some set of jerks gets upset about something... say the name "Cracker Barrel" (true story at the moment). So they post an article at Huffpo how racist this is. Other liberal sites run with it. Their talkers spend days talking about it... between anti-Bush stories. Right wing talk radio picks it up and acts like this is some mass movement on the left that has spread to the public: "Now THEY want to ban Cracker Barrel! This nation has gone insane." Soon, it's all over Drudge, Breitbart, Huffpo, etc. And there are tens of thousands of comments (from a few dozen people) all over these sites.

The next thing you know, sane people like those who visit here are thinking, "This is everywhere!! How did this happen?"

But the truth is this isn't everywhere, it's really nowhere. This was never more than a couple hundred people tops and if you asked the public at large less than 1% will even know about the issue.

That's why its important to keep a perspective on what the public cares about and what they don't.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, Speaking of Facebook, it's also important to remember that intensity matters. And it's very easy on Facebook to repost something that others have posted. Hence, it's easy to show support for something you really don't care about. Always give it a couple days to see if the support continues or if they get bored and move on.

BevfromNYC said...

The only thing that comes to mind is that "The squeaky wheel get the attention". The wingbats have always been the most vocal. They are the special interests/single issue people. Before the age of the internet, they were allowed to scream and yell and protes from the back of the room, but the overwhelming majority of sensible, rational, bipartisan realists were the ones who actually the ones who had the microphone and moved the country forward in a rational, sensible, bipartisan way. We in the "middle" know that no one can or will agree 100% of the time and most people do not like being forced to believe anything..

Now that has flipped because the wingnuts have the microphone and won't let go. No one of reason can get through. And because most people do not have time to really listen (where we used to rely on our sensible media, sensible elected officials etc), now we rely on sound bites, misleading headlines, 24/7 news cycles that whip everyone up into a frenzy.

It's eerily like that "2 minutes of hate" that Orwell wrote about in "1984"...

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, That's exactly the problem. In the past, these people could be ignored because it was obvious that they were a tiny minority. But the way the internet and the 24 hour news cycle works today, they have been given a way to make it seem like they are this massive movement because they can band together and flood the handful of influential websites, who will then write about it and all the other websites and talk radio will repeat what they do. Meanwhile, the real public (the 99% of everyone else) gets ignored.

As an interesting aside, one thing I found interesting when I lived in DC was that Congressmen were very good at sorting out who was real and who wasn't based on mailings. If they got a massive ton of letters from all over the country, all saying the similar things, then they knew that an issue had resonated. If they didn't get a lot of letters or they got a lot but they all came from direct mailing operations, then they knew that it had not resonated. The MSM seemed to clue in on this too.

Today, too many in the MSM and the political class watch the internet and try to ride these manufactured movements because that has become their core audience for ratings or to seem popular.

And because of this, there is this warped sense of reality that the things you see at Huffpo or Brietbart or that Sarah Palin does matter to the public... they don't.

Kit said...

Welcome to the Age of Twitter.

Kit said...

What has really disturbed me is that 100 or so people can form a small lynch mob to ruin someone's life and succeed quite easily within 24 hours —with the full support of the media.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Twitter is another place that is truly meaningless. It's full of people with pre-formed opinions about things only a tiny number of people care about and they shout at each other as if they can win some magic debate that way and sway the country.

AndrewPrice said...

In terms of ruining someone, it kind of depends on who you work for and what you did. In general though, it's not really something that the vast, vast, vast majority of the public needs to worry about. The rest just need to be more clever and learn the art of fighting back.

Kit said...

"In terms of ruining someone, it kind of depends on who you work for and what you did."

So, if you work for a Left-wing university you are screwed?

"The rest just need to be more clever and learn the art of fighting back."

I agree.

AndrewPrice said...

I would say that anything "corporate" is a danger. If you work for a Fortune 500 company, they will scapegoat you in a heartbeat. Universities, on the other hand, will crucify you as an example to the others. Anyone "reputation based" like a law firm will dump you immediately.

But if you're union, government, or self-employed, then you're safe. If you have a skill they need, then you are safe. If you're too small to worry about (like a mechanic) then you are safe. And of course, if you avoid sticking your own head in the trap then you are safe.

And if you do want to play with fire, then you need to learn the rules protect yourself and then, again, you will be safe. There is a real art form to speaking truth to assholes without getting covered in sh*t.

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